The Wily Sheepdog - By Pamela Braithwaite
This true story, written by Pamela
Braithwaite, MRCVS, was published in The Dalesman, January 2003
We would like to thank both Pamela and The Dalesman for giving us
permission to reproduce it here.
The farmer lifted his sheepdog onto the consulting room table, held him there firmly by gripping his scruff and turned a worried face towards the man on the other side.
His question was brief and to the point. "Can he see owt?"
The Veterinary surgeon bent down and examined the animal's eyes. as he did so the big black and white dog thumped a friendly furry tail and put up no resistance to the light shining on his retina.
Donald, who specialised in ophthalmology, did not take long to reach his diagnosis.
"No, I'm sorry, he is totally blind."
The farmer stared at him in amazement. "How long since he lost his sight?" "Well, it has been going gradually over some time, but he has been completely blind for about a year."
This news was greeted with an expression of total disbelief. "I can hardly credit it. Jip, you old devil, how did you do it?"
Looking up and seeing the vets equally puzzled expression, the man recounted the story behind the case and the reason for the visit.
The farm where Jip lived and worked included three large hillside fields separated by low stone walls and connected by large metal gates. A flock of sheep cropped the short grass there and it was Jip's job to move them from one area to the next as the grazing deteriorated.
This involved scaling the stone wall, rounding up the sheep and waiting until the farmer opened the gate before driving the flock through to where the grass had had time to grow again and could provide better eating.
Then one day as Jip was busy working, the farmer put a bucket down in the open gateway and the dog ran straight into it.
The next morning he was in Donald's surgery. It did not take the two men long to work out what had happened.
While the intelligent animal's sight deteriorated he put every detail of the farms into his memory.
Exact distance between his kennel and the surrounding buildings were noted until he could trot around the place without anyone realising that his sight was fading.
When called upon to work, he followed the shepherd along familiar tracks, his body tense, excitedly awaiting his order to 'Go bye'. Distant bleating told him which of the fields the sheep were grazing. then he raced off across the grass until the distance and feel of the place told him he had reached the wall.
Clambering over it he sensed the presence of the sheep by sound and smell and proceeded to round them up, just as he had always done. Finally he listened for the squeaking of the gate as the farmer opened it.
This was the signal that told him he was free to usher his charges to fresh pasture.
The unexpected bucket gave him away.
Donald gazed at Jip in genuine admiration.
The dog seemed happy with his lot and sat quietly, his tail wagging every time his name was mentioned. "What are you going to do with him now you know he is blind?"
The farmer did not hesitate. "Nothing. I will leave things just the way they are."
It was a year or two later when vet and farmer met up again at a cattle market.
Typical of his profession, Donald could not remember the man's name, but could not only recall the dog's name, but every single detail of his eye condition.
"How's Jip these days? Is he still around?" The farmer smiled. "Oh aye! He's doing well, enjoys his work as much as ever.
The only difference is that these days I take care to give him a few more whistles to guide him around the place."
This was not a BCR case but does serve well to illustrate that a dog - even with a total disability, can continue to function without heed to its handicap because it will substitute and enhance other senses and abilities to make up for those that it has lost.
It would not have gone so well for this dog if the farmer had taken it off work when he had its problem confirmed - the dog would have become frustrated and bored and lost the main point to its life.
Sheepdogs should be left to retire themselves. They cannot be
forced or intimidated to work and when they have had enough,
they stop of their own accord. They know - you will know. That's
the point to retire them. If they don't want to retire - why
frustrate them and take away their sense of worth by forcing it
In this case it went on for so long before being noticed because the dog gradually lost his sight but remained in the same environment. If the loss of eyesight had happened suddenly then the dog would not have had time to compensate, made mistakes and been 'found out' quickly. The same would have occurred if it had been moved to unfamiliar surroundings.
This is not an isolated case by any means - we hear of Blind Sheepdogs, Deaf Sheepdogs, 3 legged Sheepdogs and have come across one instance of a twin amputee with a front and back leg removed from opposite sides, but still just as keen and able to herd.
The important thing to consider with a blind dog is that the dog will map out it's environment and move around from memory.
So keep things as they are and don't move items without showing them what you have done so they can remember the changes and modify their guidance system.
A handicap is only a problem if it is perceived to be a problem. Otherwise it's just a different way of doing things.
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